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Four From Ukraine

M. J. Nicholls


o a backdrop of bombed buildings on a desolate Kharkiv street, cellist Denys Karachevtsev sits alone on a stool playing Bach’s Suite No. 5 in C Minor, in a viral video that will pass into history as one of the most moving documents of the tragedy of Putin’s barbarous assault on Ukraine. At the time of writing, over 8000 Ukrainian civilians and forces have been killed in the war, among them an unknowable number of potential artists, writers, and musicians. By the end of the war, Putin will have created a lost generation of artists, robbing Ukraine of a potentially fervent chapter in the nation’s cultural history, in the same way his cabal of oligarchs and gangsters have robbed the Russian people.

As a homage to Ukraine’s vibrant literary history, here are four works of Ukrainian literature in English translation you can read as a form of fundamentally meaningless yet well-intentioned readerly solidarity.

Patriotism ought to involve a continuous act of self-interrogation and the tireless pursuit of national improvement through the examination of history, rather than falling knock-kneed before a flag. This is reflected across the literature of Ukraine, including in Oksana Zabuzhko’s Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex (Amazon Crossing, tr. Halyna Hryn). One the most popular Ukrainian novels of the post-independence period is a strident, experimental, and full-fanged onslaught on the country’s culture, history, and machismo, narrated by a feminist writer working in America. The prose is constructed in torturously poetic page-long sentences, with frequent shifts from first to second to third person, blurring the line between autofiction and narrative, as the narrator recounts an abusive relationship within a broader Bernhardian canvas combining a cryptic and hilarious onslaught of snark with reflection, comment, and free-association oddness (a chunk of which is lost to this Ukrainely naïve reader). This sort of novel is usually relegated to DIY indie presses with ten subscribers in the UK. In Ukraine, it was on the bestseller list for ten years. Her epic novel The Museum of Abandoned Secrets is also available from Amazon Crossing.

Another of the most successful post-1991 novels, Yuri Andrukhovrch’s The Moscoviad (Spuyten Duyvil, tr. Vitaly Chernetsky), is a hyperactive hoot narrated in the third and first persons by poet Otto Von F., in exile with a clutch of other tormented and eccentric writers in a “literary dormitory” in Moscow. The narrative style is a nonlinear swirl of set-pieces, with satirical riffs on Ukrainian culture and history, surreal digressions and a parodic Russian spy plot that sees the writer persecuted in classic Soviet fashion by being locked in a cage. The author is a co-founder of the Bu-Ba-Bu poetic group, the closest thing to Oulipo in Eastern Europe, and the novel has honorary commonalities, such as the playful multi-lingual wordplays, the furious commitment to larks and levity above all, and a blithe dismissal of any tedious old narrative scaffolding that the masses have been conditioned to expect. On a self-indulgent note, the “literary dormitory” has much in common with the edifice in my novel The House of Writers, the title of which is (coincidentally) mentioned on p.32. Several works by Andrukhovrch are available in English, including the novels Perverzion and Recreation, and recently the essay collection My Final Territory.

Born in Kyiv in 1887, Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky was a wilfully elusive writer whose works were published posthumously. The collection of seven fantastical stories Memories of the Future (NYRB, tr. Joanne Turnbull) shows him as an heir apparent to the similarly Ukraine-born-but-wrote-in-Russian Gogol. Among the bangers here include ‘The Bookmark’, an early metafictional story about storytellers losing control of their characters, and ‘Someone Else’s Theme’, a sliver of literary satire spiced with a sprinkling of the fantastical, veering opaquely into weird thickets of wtf until it appears the story has become another entirely. ‘The Branch Line’ and ‘Red Snow’ are surrealistic dream-narratives with flickers of Bulgakovian magic, and ‘The 13th Category of Reason’ is irresistible black comedy. The title tale transports the time-machine yarn to Stalinist Russia in an extremely detailed SF yarn that predates the nouveau roman’s parodically exact descriptive exactitude. Joanne Turnbull preserves the wordplay and unusual snakiness of his sentences, making this septet an excellent place to begin. NYRB have translated a wondrous heap of his works, including the mordant oddity Autobiography of a Corpse.

The anthology Before the Storm: Soviet Ukrainian Fiction of the 1920s (Ardis, tr. Yuri Tkacz) features seventeen Ukrainian writers, twelve of whom perished in Russian gulags in the 1930s and 1940s. A vital snapshot of the breadth of Ukrainian literary talent squandered by the tyranny of Stalinism, the stories showcase a range of emerging literary styles opposed to Soviet realism. The longest piece, by Mykola Khvylovy, from his incomplete novel The Woodcocks, takes inspiration from the talky epics of Dostoevsky in its exploration of the identity of modern Ukrainian man, in an era when people were free to have thinky confabs about the merits of communism-cum-fascism. There are pastiches of Sherlock Holmes, twitchy and paranoid homages to Gogol, imagistic stories in surreal pastoral moods, stories exploring the opposition to communism in peasant villages, autofictions on the toils of toadying up to the Soviet Union, and several moderately amusing attempts at light comedy. The volume demonstrates the wealth of styles and movements percolating at the time, from the Free Academy of Proletarian Literature (VAPLITE) , apolitical futurism, to a form of modernism influenced by Western Europe.

Other notable works in English translation:

From Three Worlds: New Writing from Ukraine – Ed Hogan (ed.)

Depeche Mode / The Orphanage – Serhiy Zhadan

Grey Bees – Andrey Kurkov

Wozzeck – Yurii Izdryk

Herstories: An Anthology of New Ukrainian Women Prose Writers – Michael M. Naydan

Dead Souls / Collected Stories – Nikolai Gogol

Sweet Darusya – Maria Matios

The Sarabande of Sara’s Band – Larysa Denysenko

The Lost Button – Irene Rozdobudko

Tango of Death – Yuri Vynnychuk

Peltse and Pentameron – Volodymyr Dibrova


M. J. Nicholls